Released in January, Pirate Mentality is a documentary study of grime in its elemental form and its rise from an inner-city curiosity into an arena selling genre, prefiguring the run of impressive releases that were to come this year.
The ascent of trap has charged new life into hip-hop (and related genres) the world over and it is the steadiest current running through the entirety of grime music today which, aspects of which we examined in August when J Hus, Stormzy and Loyle Carner we're nominated for the Mercury Prize.
In its annual report, the British Phonographic Industry revealed that sales and streaming of products labelled as grime nearly doubled between May 2016 and 2017. Despite these impressive numbers, only a handful of projects labelled as grime had being released by August, one of which was Lethal Bizzle's "You Will Never Make A Million Off Grime," a notable exception from our list below. In order to understand the seeming paucity of releases and further examine the state of grime and its place in the British music industry, we interviewed two industry insiders: Mikey Akin, one half of the production duo, Sons of Sonix, who contributed to Stormzy's, Gang Signs & Prayer, as well as helming most of Wretch 32's FR32, as well as interviewing Robert Bruce, a radio presenter on Capital Xtra.
Away from the crunching of data and resulting politics, we also examined the state of MCing in grime and rap by profiling nine of the best artists in the UK, who all showcase a wide range of craftsmanship, as well as the ability to make pop hits, some in their beginning years and one reaching vet status. They also happen to all be women who reject genre denotations, and rightly so considering "I can bar better than half the man dem" in Ms Banks' own words, needed words in an industry whose iceberg of misogyny is thawing slower than it is in other genres.
Any concerns that not enough grime projects were being released may have been premature, for by December, a variety of mixtapes and albums had dropped from which we've selected the best 20 of all rap and grime releases in the UK.
The 17 songs on Tinie Tempah's third album may not cohere as a whole but taken individually, majority of the songs are well crafted pop and rap confections espousing his taste for high-living and his supremacy in not just hip-hop but British pop in general—well earned considering his seven No. 1 singles are more than any UK artist managed between 2010-2020. [Read the full album review here]
Giggs Wamp To Dem
The Chief Absurdist of British rap and grime delivers all manner of tough-talk and slick-talk, OG wisdom and outrageous lyricism, over production that is mostly slow and stark, sometimes sparse and frequently metallic which should make for a joyless but is in fact an engaging experience. The real joy (if that's the word) is to be found in Giggs' unique exaggerations - even when imprecise or too outlandish to be taken seriously. [Read the full album review here]
Lady Leshurr Mode
Lady Leshurr is a battle rapper par excellence on account of her Queen Speech freestyles; a continuing series of bar-fests, by turns clever and articulate. She brought these qualities to bare on Mode, an EP of six songs which also displayed her songwriting abilities, and more of the biting humor and precise delivery which has made her one the best MC in the British isles.
Stefflon Don Real Ting
Stefflon Don would appear to have arrived fully formed on her "mixtape" from the assured way she inhabits different musical styles, from pounding bashment to afro-bashment its mellow nephew, from drill to spaced out R&B and the truly impressive adaptation of trap flows on garage—all of which make for an accomplishing debut project.
Nadia Rose Highly Flammable
"The eight songs on Nadia Rose's debut Highly Flammable are like a pack of firecrackers, each of varying strength and spark-points, but all brimming with boisterous belligerence." These words were written in January upon the release of the EP and hold true a near full year later when any novelty surely would have worn off. [Read the full album review here]
Nolay This Woman
With fury and finesse, Nolay tackles, head on, matters of domestic abuse, empowerment, male chauvinism and lazy gender expectations on an album she claims to have made in just five hours. If it reads like a feminist tract, it is also a compassionate address to women who may not have her wherewithal. On the whole, This Woman is a laudable combination of social activism and lyrical virtuosity.
The genre inventor is every bit as vital as he is engaging on song after song as he finally accepts the much touted title of "Godfather" of grime. A constellation of 12 committed MCs and 20 producers of the austere and menacing beats are marshalled into a cohesive and frequently thrilling album.[Read the full review here]
Stormzy Gang Signs & Prayer
Hunched over a table-full of black cutlery and flanked by cohorts in all black, the cover art for "Gang Signs & Prayer" make for strong metaphors, most inviting is that of grime, long in critical and commercial doldrums, but finally eating from the prized table of commercial and critical successes - and mostly on its own terms. [Read our full album review here]
Wretch 32 FR32
Wretch 32 does not need features. He's singing and rapping have the varying textures that he's requested from each guest on FR32, and the raw honesty he's brought to personal matters from his life would, in theory, make it even more cohesive, which takes little away from the wholesomeness on his fourth album. At 12 songs and no longer than 45 minutes, even sharper focused is Wretch's writing, matched by a commanding delivery which has him deploying his voice in myriad flows, often dense, somethings breathless whether in plain english, black British ebonics or Jamaican patois.
If regga-trap is not a thing, Wretch makes a strong case for it on "Break-fast" which is, in part, about his objection to giving fellatio and unlike the overly generous men who do. Kojey Radical crystallizes painful racist attitudes on "Colour Purple" when he opens with the words "I was 14 when I knew that I was black, not by pigmentation but hatred and fear attacks", in an equally tortured voice, while the "Whistle", a naked club bait is saved for the last. On "Gracious", he smoothly skates over a zigzagging trap beat with a sung-rap flow wryly observing that "being timeless takes a minute", a theme he continues on "Power" but on a personal front when he notes, "age starting to show, grey starting to poke / pace starting to slow, faith starting to go / I'm sounding ungrateful but who asked to be grown", before going on to give the subject fuller scope on "Time" - a discourse about how dictatorial the passage of time could be and the clarity it brings to reflections, one that qualifies as a "trap ballad" on account of Wretch's high-pitched trap cadence, rap-sung over a plangent piano.
On "His & Hers", he showcases virtuoso story-ing a competing tale about a hurting and hurtful couple in a souring relationship that gets progressively complex as would a psychological thriller, made even more digestible by a catchy chorus (if a little on the nose). The domestic theme carries on in "Happy", a heartwarming ode to his daughter which ends with her drawing a house with her brother and parents in it, a promise perhaps which Wretch admits he hasn't kept, "we didn't see that through and i apologize to you".
J Hus Common Sense
No longer a hook man for hire, J Hus is a well rounded artists on his debut Common Sense—a stewed mix of genres tastefully concocted by J Hus and Jae5, who produced the entirety of the project drawing rap but also grime, garage, bashment as well a afro-bashment in a meticulous fashion that is even more impressive considering both Hus was 22 and J5 was 25 when the album was released in May, peaking at No. 6 on the UK Albums Chart, as well as earning a Mercury Prize nomination.
Loyle Carner Yesterday's Gone
"Zen-rap" may not be a recognised sub-genre but on his debut, Loyle Carner is frequently meditative in his lyrics, helped by an unforced delivery and a sonic palette, primed to soothe and ease in his many ruminations. [Read our full review here]
"They like what's good G? / Same shit Broski, man is still hustling / i switched up the pack, cleaned up the cash but the trap is still jumping" goes Skepta on EP opener "Still" and no doubt coy given his steep rise in profile since the release of his last album "Konnichiwa" last year, though he soon brags about his new status most notably on "Hypocrisy" when he states: "just came back from the Ivors, and look what we collected / the MBE got rejected, i'm not tryna be accepted". As if to spotlight his less praised skill as a producer, he's made every track on "Vicious" but elicited support from Section Boyz, Lil B, ASAP Rocky and ASAP Nast - solid additions that do not upstage the cocksure host at his most confident as he reminds on "Still" where he, once again, answers himself "Who am i scared of? I am the omen". Greaze! indeed!
Bugzy Malone King of the North
"How can a guy come from out of town, come to town and fuck up the whole grime scene?" asks Bugzy Malone on "Through The Night", one of eight songs on his third EP King of the North. The audacious title is not misplaced, even when not wholly convincing as he's yet to release his debut album. But it speaks to his prominence in grime, headquartered in London, despite hailing from Manchester—a two hour journey by train but further behind in vitality. On the wistful "Memory Lane", he rues about broken friendships, intra-community violence and lost childhoods believing "we've been broken since childhood", while "Aggy With It" is characterised by a menacing flow that lays true his claim to be a "bully on the beat", but he is at his most triumphalist on the titular "King of the North" whose opening march of chants, bells are energised with trap percussion and unexpected humility when he asks "and now that I've made it, can somebody say grace please?"
Dave Game Over
This is impressive second offering from the 19-year-old after 2016's Six Paths. Three of the seven songs run over seven minutes and are easily the most thematically focused, one of which is the self-produced "How I Met My Ex" about a lady five years his senior, and the state of the nation address that is "Question Time," a critique of the UK's political class and their decision making on health care, war on terror and poverty, best crystallised mid-way through the song: "underpaid, understaffed, overworked and overseen by people who can't ever understand what it's like to live life like you and I."
Chipmunk League of My Own II
Chip is on top form on League of My Own II, presented as a follow up to his mixtape of the same title released 10 years ago and prefigured his debut album "I Am Chipmunk" which debuted on No.2 on the UK albums chart. As if to side-look this early success, Chip announces "love rap, love grime, pop i just pimped it" on the "The Outro," which whether as a corrective or brag, is bookended by an "Intro" which features a pseudo-biblical pep-talk from his father asking him to "put on his spiritual armour." Nearly half the 17 songs here are fulcrumed on a single word or catch phrase, around which Chip nimbly weaves impressive play on words, street tales, fidelity in romantic relationships, fixation on social media, and familial troubles over jittery grime and viscous trap productions—bouyed by an intellect and persona that makes one pay close attention to his every utterance.
Avelino No Bullshit
Avelino's 2015 joint mixtape with Wretch 32 "Young Fire, Old Flames" twinned both rapper's similar melodic sensibilities and one which he expounds on his solo follow up "No Bullshit," an assured and focused project which centers on his gifts for switching flows, freed from starry features making for a claustrophobic, yet engaging listen. The most obvious sign of "no bullshit" Avelino has chosen not to take here is the different and dexterous flow patterns he brings to the ten songs (and two skits) here. Whether over a house beats, rap or grime, he adapts his grainy-bass malleably as in the love overtures on "One In A Million," "No Such Thing" and "Sweet Luv," as he does when simultaneously sermonising and turning up on "You Can't Stand Up/ Royal." Life is imitating art and imitating life on "It's a Moovie/Prodigy," a gloomy tale which opens with the question "How do you protect your family from the roads? Coz the streets are wild right now in the UK" and finds Avelino comparing the unreal reality of streetlife to a movie, urged on by an insistent piano and his bleak vision.
Big Shaq / Michael Dapaah Mans Not Hot
Closing in on 150 million views in under 2 months, Big Shaq / Michael Dapaah's biting satire on grime cultures exposes its bloated image of toughness but whose humor could further inculcate the genre—vibrant and still nascent—in people's minds.
New Gen New Gen
Starting life as a live event in London aiming to showcase newer or less recognised talents, New Gen evolved into a show on Radar Radio and now a compilation of material from varying artists who give a very clear idea of how robust the UK's rap and grime scene is, away from the established names. Avelino and Bonkaz tag-team on opener "Welcome to the New Gen," piggybacking off each other's rhymes, refreshing a once recurrent hip hop trope, little practised today. Ray BLK, winner of the BBC Sound of 2017 in the same January month "New Gen" was released, worried about the pressures of new fame on "Busy" as if in anticipation for the year she was to have.
Kojey Radical went on to make stellar contributions to Jul's "Leap of Faith" and Wretch 32's "FR32" amongst others, but started the year impressively with "Fuck Your Feelings", combining spoken word and rap over a slow-boiling beat and felt hummings as if drawing from negro spirituals. Bonkaz, whose past dealings with the law drew a special rebuke from managing editor Aaron Leaf, is introspective about personal growth and lost relationships on "Life Support" anchored by wistful chorus from Tiggs Da Author, a breezy saxophone and trap snares. Stefflon Don's authority and Abra Cadabra's menace are combined to good effect on the drill of "Money Haffi Make," an approach she would later give fuller attention on her debut mixtape "The Real Ting." Dotty is pained and relentless on "Thoughts," a simple title weighted with tales of personal and familial failings and the stark social conditions that continue to hamper sometimes hapless youths when,"we're just some cool kids tryna get it and get out."
Section Boyz Soundcheck
[Read the full review here ]
Dizzee Rascal Raskit
Over 16 songs and with no features, Dizzie Rascal is engaging and fiery on his sixth album Raskit—a solid compaction of hard-nose lyrics and world weary vision, delivered with energised flow patterns that would suggest he's hungering for new relevance, when he's not sniffy enough to list his exasperation on "Sick of Dis," which shares a combined palette of jittery grime beats and the jangle of trap.
Only in his 30s but already a grime vet, Rascal is central to the genre on account of his continuing vitality, and yet peripheral when compared to the newer acts and the novelty they bring. On "Way I Am" he brags: "I don't do no dab, but the Hublot bad," in a bid to distance himself from youthful fads, a point he makes even clearer on "Focus" when he says, "I never thought I'd see social media replace the TV". Perhaps too aware of the creative slumber brought on by vet status, he insists that he's "wide awake I can't fake no more / wide awake I can't take no more" on "Everything Must Go" but is less veiled on "Ghost" where he snarls "I was on pirate radio before Mike Skinner," further pressing his point by proclaiming, "talk about grime like I ain't a staple / I was on the mic when you was in play school" followed by veiled bragging about surviving being stabbed six times.
He's saved his biggest boast for "Dummy (16 For The Juice)" whose plush bass, twinkling piano and stacked trap percussion is coupled with a frenetic cadence making for a hard bounce and undoubted truth: "been had the flavour, look at everybody eating off my recipe"—in reference to his chart and musical successes as an independent artist, copied by many a grime artist in this current revival. Rascal may not yet be monied or bored or inspired enough to make a dad-rap album a la Jay Z's 4:44, but having achieved critical and commercial success at such a young age, in such a (still) young genre, his boasts become mere facts, as it is when he states: "you'll never see the day that Dizzie Rascal fade away".